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Sunday, 3 April 2011


Keith Chapman is better known to Archive readers as Chap O'Keefe, author of a series of hugely popular western novels - his character Misfit Lil is a particular favourite around these parts, but as well as being an accomplished novelist Keith has an interesting background in comic books.

In his previous post HERE Keith said he prefered the text type stories to comic strips and yet one of the unique strengths of the comic book would seem to be its visual nature? When did it become obvious that strips were going to see the end of the text story? When I was reading comics in the seventies the only time we ever saw a text story was in an annual, and even that was rare. Was there opposition to strips dominating? Did the old school in the industry think the comic book was dumbing down?

The first part is easy to answer. If your customer wants a story told in comic-strip form, he or she is by definition seeking entertainment of a visual nature, so that's going to be the product's strength. I'm not sure about the strength being "unique" to the comic book. Some would argue the swing to comics was driven by the increasing accessibility of movies and television after the Second World War.

From the writer's point of view, writing scripts was possibly a slightly faster procedure than writing text stories. Payment was therefore better if you had a good flow of ideas. In the same time it took to write a text yarn of 3,000 to 6,000 words for a weekly story paper, a writer could produce script for the instalments of several serials appearing in weekly comics. I'm sure people like Ted Cowan, who originally wrote the likes of the Ginger Nutt school stories for The Champion, were happy enough to switch to scriptwriting for Lion and its companions. One of Cowan's best remembered creations today is Lion's Robot Archie while Ginger Nutt was in all but name revived in strip form as Dodger Caine for Tiger.

I can't recall anyone stopping to say the switch was simply a dumbing down. Opposition to domination by strips might have come from readers who saw story papers close one by one to be replaced by frequently short-lived comics. But broadly speaking that didn't arise. Young buyers didn't have a public place to voice concerns, and their years for enjoying either form of literature were probably no more than a half-dozen at best. They lost interest and a next generation of readers never knew what they were missing.

I'm far from the only one who'd like to know for sure what really caused the end of the weekly story papers. Likewise, many would like to know what had, by the end of the 1980s, reduced the British comics industry to a shadow of what it was just a couple of decades earlier. I've heard of once prolific and talented contributors who today are so disillusioned about what happened they can't bring themselves to talk about it to the one-time fans of their work. I suspect the meltdown had more to do with changes of business ownership and the inflation of costs -- ever-rising cover prices getting out of sync with income. Perhaps more avenues had arrived to compete for pocket money, too.

In the 1960s, financial pressures were already shaping what could and could not be done in the comics field. My employers at Micron were under-capitalised. Debts to their printers and others mounted. One quick answer was an increase in the cover price of Micron pocket libraries from one shilling to one shilling and threepence. It wasn't much more than ten years since a rival 64-page Amalgamated Press (Fleetway) library had cost just sevenpence a copy. But when Micron raised its prices, Fleetway didn't follow suit. Possibly it needed to by this date, but it stuck to the handy and attractive "1/-" tag. The big corporation that controlled Fleetway also owned the biggest glossy magazines, including the top three women's weeklies packed with lucrative colour advertising and commanding profitable circulations. This gave it muscle with the big chains and distributors like WH Smith, all important when it came to launching new titles and maintaining the stocking and display of old favourites. 

When Micron had to hand over its business to an associate company of its main printer, I was lucky enough to find alternative employment with Odhams Books, first in Henrietta Street, then in offices above the Covent Garden tube (subway) station behind those odd, semi-circular windows you can see in the picture. Here, slips on banana skins were not just a possibility in comic-book art but on the footpaths, too. Covent Garden was still London's main market for fruit and vegetables; a fragrant and colourful setting.

And so I was back in the central city with what was essentially another division of the corporation I'd left when I'd quit Fleetway. But the two years I'd spent as an editor at Micron had put me in a different league. This time, comprehensive experience and the sheer volume of work I'd handled in Mitcham at Micron allowed Managing Editor George Beal to justify taking me on to the Odhams staff  as a senior.

The convenience of having a willing writer on hand in the office was also valued, I think. I was invited to contribute scripts and stories galore to all of the annual, book editions of the weekly Odhams comics: Eagle, Boys' World, Girls' World, Wham!, Smash!  Working under another name in my evenings and at weekends writing for these more expensively produced, durable hardcover books, I couldn't have been kept busier, and on a range of material, including non-fiction features. One of the articles I wrote, for a Wham! Annual, was about actor William Terriss whose ghost was said to haunt the Covent Garden tube station!

For all the dominance of strips, I don't think anyone could accuse the Eagle of this era of any dumbing down. Nor the similar Boys' World and Girls' World.

But the group of Odhams comics that became known as the Power Comics included Wham! and Smash!, which were launched as humour titles based initially around the talents of artist Leo Baxendale, a defector from the D. C. Thomson comics, like the Beano and the Dandy, which were based in Dundee, Scotland. The Power Comics were supervised by Alf Wallace, whom I've already mentioned in his previous, similar role at Fleetway. Early on, Smash! also introduced reprints of the Marvel superheroes, like the Incredible Hulk, to the wider British public.

I'm in no way ashamed of my minor association with the groundbreaking Power Comics, both scriptwriting and editing for the Wham! and Smash! Annuals. But looking back, I would have to agree with others that the Smash! comic's appeal was centred around a sense of rebellion and irreverence. Eventually, Smash! was revamped and absorbed into the larger IPC Magazines stable where comics were produced along traditional Fleetway lines.

Cartoonist Lew Stringer has commented at his Blimey! blog that Smash!, with "its swingin' sixties demeanour, its sense of anarchy, and its unique identity", lost a great deal when it was finally revamped to "conform to the template of a traditional boys' weekly". And a reader commenting at the same blog has said of the revamp, "I was, as they say today, gutted when this happened! .... Somehow, it really felt like the sixties were over when this happened!"

To quote Lew more fully: "Smash! had pretty much ignored the traditional UK adventure fare of war and sport serials. The adventure series it had contained had been fantastic in nature, from the British superhero Rubberman to the time-traveling series The Legend Testers. Smash! had been an escapist comic, non-establishment in many ways, and readers loved that aspect of it. IPC's takeover heralded a move to neuter Smash's maverick nature and turn it into a standard boy's adventure weekly."

The British-originated adventure strips that appeared in Smash! were influenced by the American reprints. To see what I mean, take a look at the scans of the Rubberman and Legend Testers sets I hope you'll be able to put up at the Archive.

Rubberman featured in the weekly comic in serials, but the story here is one of two, complete in four pages, that I wrote for Smash! Annual 1968. It went on sale in the last quarter of 1967 for the Christmas-gift market. Note that this Rubberman is not the character who appeared in US comics, but the one created for Smash! comic by Ken Mennell and Alfredo Marculeta. For curiosity's sake, you might also like to see an image of the first page of the carbon copy of my typewritten script.

Then there's the Legend Testers, a complete five-pager that featured in the 1969 annual. Like Rubberman, Rollo and Danny, the Legend Testers, appeared in serials in the weekly. I think I wrote three scripts featuring the characters for the Smash! annuals.

Dumb? It's question of how you want to look at it, I guess. But the blood-and-thunder element is not so very different from some of what I've written much later in the Chap O'Keefe western novels.


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